Whereas Joe Johnston’s Jumanji was defined by belligerent special effects of both the computer-animated (vicious monkeys, charging rhinos) and human (a hyperactive Robin Williams) variety, Jon Favreau’s Zathura—a similar board game-come-to-life fairy tale based on a Chris Van Allsburg book—mercifully relies only on the former. Which isn’t to say that this bludgeoning, episodic sci-fi saga isn’t still swarming with cacophonous explosions and creatures. Rather, it’s simply that, without any marquee personalities (save for a brief turn by a reserved Tim Robbins) around to devour the scenery, the film makes time amid its meteor showers and alien attacks to root itself in the small-scale drama between Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and younger brother Danny (Jonah Bobo), two boys struggling to come to terms with their parents’ divorce. Left alone on a Saturday afternoon by their dad (Robbins), Walter and Danny find themselves engulfed in a cosmic adventure when Danny begins playing the titular board game, a rickety creation of wind-up keys, spinning number counters, and mechanized playing pieces that magically launches their house into the atmosphere. Delivering a cornucopia of outer space sights designed with retro ‘50s-era style (including a Forbidden Planet-ish defective robot), Zathura functions much like its board game namesake, its forward motion a step-by-step progression through predictably scheduled frantic encounters with extraterrestrials and a wayward astronaut (Dax Shepard). Favreau balances astonishing spectacle with the push-pull argumentativeness of his pint-sized protagonists, and the early earthbound bickering between the kids—facilitated by the filmmaker’s assured direction and his stars’ convincing rapport—has a contentious credibility. Unfortunately, beholden to set-piece extravagance above all else, the film quickly finds itself adrift in turgid CG exhibitionism. The appeal of Van Allsburg’s story hinges on exploiting the childhood fantasy of “entering” a board game, and yet by succumbing to prosaic literal visualizations of out-of-this-world fantasticalities, Favreau’s cinematic adaptation devolves into a familiar, unimaginative real-life cartoon. And thus aside from Walter and Danny’s provocatively dressed, hot-to-trot older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart, successfully obliterating her Panic Room tomboyishness), Zathura ultimately comes across as little more than the template for an eventual kiddie-friendly theme park attraction.
On Zathura's commentary track, Jon Favreau extols the blown-out look of the film's early scenes. I'm not exactly sure what "effect" Favreau was going for with this technique, but it strips the image of its detail and makes these early scenes a little difficult to look at. Luckily there aren't too many of these scenes and the rest of the film, with the exception of some digital junk around the smallest objects, is pleasant to look at. Audio is spectacular-an ominous, surprisingly boomy beast that's especially jolting whenever one of the story's monsters is on the prowl.
Favreau shares the disc's commentary track with the film's producer, former child actor and urban-legend footnote Peter Billingsley, who allows Favreau to do much of the talking here. The director, who is restrained but incredibly passionate about the project and its actors, dishes out anecdotes that are as interesting from a business perspective as they are from a creative one. (Favreau acknowledges Close Encounters of a Third Kind as an influence and reveals the challenges the kids' growth spurts-especially their loss of baby teeth-placed on the production.) A series of lively featurettes, including a making-of documentary cover all aspects of the production, from its casting to its special effects. (Most interesting is the coverage of the film's miniatures, which Favreau was adamant about using as a throwback to the early films of Spielberg and Lucas.) Also included here are theatrical trailers for other Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment titles.
Don't know what bible-thumpers will think of the older sister's incestuous feelings for her brother, but Zathura is still a film most families should be able to get behind.